Review: The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian masterpiece is the sort of book that gets burned or banned by critics unable to refute and too timid either to try or to call in greater masters to do so, and unwilling to take the care that it find its way only into prepared hands. The unwary reader, if not repulsed, will certainly be drawn under its spell and left troubled; even the careful reader will have to careful sort through thoughts jarred loose.

What is this book? It has layers. From the title, anyone can deduce that it is a modern retelling of the Arthurian saga. The work, though, tells the story with the women around Arthur as the main characters; and for the most part devotees of – at least a literary version of – the Druidic religion, which is pointedly pagan and licentious.

And this is where the danger comes in: it seems to me that to a reader unfamiliar with other tales of Arthur, or without strong moral convications of his own, Bradley’s characters are so strongly drawn as to color the reader’s imagination ever after. The narrator’s opinion is that all religion is potentially a legitimate yearning for the supernatural Mysteries; the Druidic God and Goddess shade into pantheism; Christianity is not refuted and indeed triumphs – but the priests, mostly nameless, are the only persons routinely belittled, and for narrow-mindedness and ignorance even of their own faith. However, I suspect Bradley is most true to herself in the characters who are – openly or quietly – agnostic: they seem to me to be about the only likeable ones.

This is also an openly feminist work: the principle put forth by the Druidic priestesses is that men may be needed to fight and die for the land – and father children – but women should rule and guide, though perhaps never stated so succinctly. The wiser kings are made to consult with their wives; Morgause rules comfortably as Queen in her own right after King Lot dies; King Arthur in war is indispensible but in peace Gwenhwyfar comes more to the fore.

Yet this is not a perfectionist feminism: this is still a tragedy. I call it feminist because these women – mainly of Avalon – are made to bear the responsibility, while the warriors and courtiers do as they will. But this is still a tragedy: hubris is the name of the day and if at any point our various leading ladies had simply stopped meddling and let things go, a happy ending for all concerned would have been hard to avoid. But as a story-telling device, I must admit that providing motivations for the actions of all concerned is more satisfying, to my modern taste at least, than the older tales where a barge or boat or arm holding a sword or whatever shows up with no explanation or any reason beyond the necessity of the plot. On the other hand, Bradley does assume that the basic plot is known to the reader – however compelling the story she tells, some of her effect depends on the reader being expected to notice how the story is changed this time.

There are, I think, two faults with the book as a work of art. First, the main narrative is periodically interrupted with reflections by Morgaine in the first person, and I struggle to find anything that they add. They suggest Bradley could have told the story quite well in the first person, but the perspective is not in any significant way different from the main narration, so that the shift mostly seems to me to disrupt the flow of the story.

Second, the conclusion is handled awfully hamfistedly. Since this is an Arthurian retelling, the events are not really in doubt, and any number of the intricate schemes set up through the book could have gone awry and prompted them. Instead we have Morgause – whom any number of people have considered ambitious, but without real cause – suddenly dabbling in blood magic; Mordred claiming – without any previous narrative justification, but with no need or plausible case for lying – that Morgause put him up to proving Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity; and no real reason – every other war we get more, and again enough provocations are suggested that even a hint could easily be given – why Mordred and Arthur should fight. Of course, the story is well-enough known that the prepared reader can be assumed to interpolate from other accounts: but this is the one place the book really fails if taken purely on its own terms.

Despite these few faults and the great number of cautions, I have no doubt that as a literary work this is a worthy addition to the collection of the tales of King Arthur.

Notes on Le Morte d’Arthur

Having made my way through two volumes containing one William Caxton’s 1485 edition – apparently the first published – of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, I am left with rather mixed impressions.

As to structure, in Caxton’s hands it has very little; according to John Lawler’s modern introduction, Malory devised a scheme of eight books reminiscent of ancient epic; how Caxton’s twenty “books” correspond is not easy to tell. One can make out a structure of roughly three parts: Arthur’s birth and establishment in the kingdom, with various wars including his invasion of France to fight with the Romans, following the British story found in Nennius, Geoffrey, etc.; then the story of Tristram; and finally the quest for the Holy Grail and the subsequent events leading to Mordred’s betrayal and Arthur’s death.

Interspersed through the first two parts – and bleeding into the last – are accounts of various quests and tournaments; the tournaments particular get a little repetitive and whatever their literary value I suspect they have more as a reflection of Lancastrian courtly expectations – or earlier French ones, depending how close Malory stayed to his sources. Some of the passages are quite well done – and the bit where several knights all end up on each other’s horses amused me – but the eyes glaze over a bit after the third or fourth virtually identical scene within thirty pages. Actual tournament ethics are baffling – at times our champions will avoid another knight doing well in order to help him to the prize, but at other times the best knight on the other side is the one to fight. It seems to have something to do with friendship or feud beforehand, but I can’t come up with a consistent rule.

When Malory is actually getting on with the story, he’s quite interesting. The individual quests are mostly well-done little vignettes; and the longer narratives – King Uther, Arthur’s discovery and early wars, the war with Rome, and the story of Sir Tristram (setting aside most of the interruptions for side-quests) all capture the imagination. (Apart from the odd decision – whether Malory’s or Caxton’s – not to actually finish the story of Tristram, whose sorry end is merely mentioned in passing later.) And the Grail and King Arthur’s death crown the book effectively.

The language does not require translation, and only a few words even require the glossary found in modern printings. A few things stood out. “W” is used instead of “g” in certain words, most commonly “wallop” for “gallop” and “wood” for “good”. “Wood” requires careful treatment, however. It is found as, of course, a noun meaning a collection of trees; as an alternate (in some passages more common) form for “good”; as an adjective with persons or behavior, glossed as “wild” (as in “mad” or even “berserk”, from context; it is tempting to suppose a derivation from “woad” and its martial connotations); it is, especially in the later tales, used adverbially, though “wildly” doesn’t always fit, and it seems to serve as an intensifier; and in certain places the only coherent reading is to take it as a contraction of “wounded”.

“Big” has its modern meaning sometimes but is primarily a synonym for “strong” although it’s used so loosely in places I’m almost inclined to suspect it of being fifteenth century slang. And finally, the verb “yede” (past tense “yode”) appears to mean “go quickly” or “hurried” but, since it seems to be used mostly of person given a specific message or mission, certain sentences result in which the very recent internet neologism “yeet” (meaning most closely, to throw or get rid of something in a hurry) would not be out of place instead at least as an analogy. As far as I know, there’s no actual derivation here, although it’s tempting to imagine one!

Malory’s combination of British and French sources results in some oddities. In the first parts, the causes and results of quarrels are often more reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas, while the later French stories are mostly issues of manners or love. In the British sources, the story knows nothing of knights as such and the story is more direct: Arthur’s war with Rome is interrupted by Morded’s treachery. Malory incorporates this but has him defeat Rome itself, and thus when he crosses to France a second time to fight Sir Launcelot after his adultery is discovered, this is only because Arthur was made to have installed various of his supporters as kings and lords over conquered Gaul.

Characterization of the knights – most notably Sir Kay – also seems to change with the source. In the British sources, Sir Kay and Sir Lucan are Arthur’s primary companions and among his most notable champions; in the quest stories, Sir Kay is full of himself and either a troublemaker or the butt of the story’s jokes, depending. Sir Gawaine’s position is ambiguous throughout. Once we get to the courtly narratives, Sir Launcelot and Sir Tristram are acknowledged near-equally as the best knights – along with Sir Lamorak, who seems to have dropped out of popular remembrance entirely. Sir Gawaine and Sir Palomides are sometimes considered their equals and sometimes not.

The story’s sexual morality is more or less non-existent. “Courtly love” in its decadence is in full effect, save for the Quest of the Grail, whose original author seems to have been trying to make a point. Otherwise the narrator is on the side of the knights in their affairs: even King Arthur remains more impressed by Sir Launcelot’s skill at arms than distressed by his betrayal, which is barely noted as such; and King Mark, whose maintainance of a long-running, often patched-up feud with Sir Tristram is about the only understandable reaction, is portrayed as a villain when not (variably) a coward.

More startling yet is King Pellinor’s rape of a woman (resulting, naturally for the genre, in a son who himself will be a knight) which is made to be practically excused by her husband, on the grounds that at least the child’s father was a king. In comparison, Arthur’s own affairs (two recorded – before his marriage, but one (unknowingly) with his sister – barely register. On the other hand – or perhaps as a result – bastardy is barely a concept: a knight’s own deeds define his worth.

There is, strangely, an element of monogamy retained: knights having declared one love are considered to be guilty, at least of bad manners, should they be caught in another affair or – by necessity or trickery – wind up married to some other lady. One suspects mediveal marriage for advantage at court – and possibly suspicion of marriage arising from over-valuing virginity – bears some blame for diminishing to honor of the wedded estate and allowing – demanding? – another code governing passions.

Overall Malory succeeds in combining his sources into a mostly coherent whole. If Caxton chose to call the work Le Morte d’Arthur – Malory’s intended title is uncertain – we can easily understand why, because the final third of the book contains the best writing.